Erdoğan feels the heat – Seren Selvin Korkmaz
Growing economic difficulties and a more united opposition threaten the hold of the Turkish president. His regime resorts to more and more repression.
By pledging to draft a civil constitution and further envisioning Turkey’s future in the European Union, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his cabinet have recently sent “pseudo-reform” signals to the rest of the country. world. At the same time, the government brutally intensified its repression in its country. Indeed, just before European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and European Council President Charles Michel visited Ankara in March – which led to the infamous’Sofagateincident – a series of disturbing developments have shaken Turkish politics.
In the past two months alone, the Turkish lira has collapsed after the sudden sacking of the country’s central bank chief, Naci Ağbal; the government began its attempt to dismantle Turkey’s main pro-Kurdish opposition party, the HDP; influential MP and human rights activist Ömer Faruk Gergerlioğlu expelled, followed by his imprisonment for a post on “social media”; and, of course, Erdoğan signed a presidential decree removing Turkey from the Istanbul convention, which aims to tackle violence against women.
To top it off, the opposition accused the government of using the central bank’s foreign exchange reserves to prop up the currency as it came under fire from interest rate cuts – state banks sold off 128 billion dollars in the forex markets to support the lire. . In response, the main opposition, the Republican People’s Party (CHP), campaigned with banners calling for “Where is the $ 128 billion?, which the government finally seized.
As Turkey’s economic crisis worsens and the cost of living rises dramatically amid Covid-19 measures, Erdoğan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) are unable to provide solutions to the challenges everyday life that people face. According to a recent Metropoll, 58% of voters expect the situation in Turkey to worsen. The economy and unemployment are Turkey’s biggest challenges, according to 65.9% of respondents.
The presidential system initiated by Erdoğan in 2017 generated a sultanist regime, relying on patronage and loyalty networks around its leader rather than providing real solutions to problems. By dismantling checks and balances as well as democratic institutions, decision-making and political suggestions only serve to maintain the hold of the AKP and its leader over power. And, to maximize support, Erdoğan continually doubles the polarization, rewards loyalty, and suppresses all dissent in the country.
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At the same time, positive developments within the opposition threaten Erdoğan’s apparent omnipotence – and force him to increasingly resort to repression through the state apparatus. The 2019 municipal elections, in which the opposition emerged victorious in some of Turkey’s major metropolitan cities like Istanbul, proved that electoral alliances between different ideological groups are a successful strategy to push back the AKP and its ally, the Party of nationalist action (MHP). These victories also reinforced voters’ hope for change and energized the opposition parties.
A more united opposition
The Future Party (GP) and the Democracy and Progress Party (DEVA), formed respectively by former AKP elite members Ahmet Davutoğlu and Ali Babacan, recently joined the anti-AKP bloc. and supported the main opposition demand for a return to “democratic order”. The Good Party (İYİ) and its leader, Meral Akşener, have also become more popular. Due to the influence of DEVA, GP and İYİ, undecided voters, who supported the AKP in previous elections and are politically opposed to the social democratic CHP, may now join the opposition.
Moreover, amid all the restrictions imposed by the central government, the mayors of Istanbul and Ankara, Ekrem İmamoğlu and Mansur Yavaş, have become potential presidential rivals of Erdoğan, based on their good performances during the Covid-19 crisis.
With the opposition starting a dialogue between the different parties and proposing a return to a parliamentary system, Erdoğan kept his strategy of division for the conquest. Persistent terrorism allegations against the HDP and attempts to ban the party – although rejected by the Constitutional Court – aim to maintain some division within the opposition, especially between the pro-Kurdish HDP and the Turkish nationalist İYİ.
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But the HDP is no longer the sole target of state repression: the government now appears to be applying what it has learned from its attacks on the HDP against other political opponents as well. Erdoğan’s administration plans to strip CHP leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu of his parliamentary immunity – a move reminiscent of the fate of former HDP leader Selahattin Demirtaş, imprisoned for several years now.
Erdoğan’s strategy is also to target particular themes on which there is a broad consensus among the broader segments of society. One is resilience against his attempts to withdraw from the Istanbul Convention, a Council of Europe instrument aimed at preventing gender-based violence.
Following claims by Islamists and religious organizations that the treaty ruins families and encourages homosexuality, Erdoğan withdrew Turkey from the convention by presidential decree on March 21. However, according to a recent poll52 percent of the population disapproves of the move, although the government effectively controls the media and has launched a massive propaganda campaign based on false information.
The withdrawal sparked widespread controversy within Turkish society, including disputes between conservative women’s groups and members of the AKP. Women’s rights activists, who are one of Turkey’s most powerful opposition movements, have staged protests across the country, facing police repression.
Despite an epidemic of gender-based violence – some 382 women were killed in 2020, in confirmed cases of femicide only – the AKP appears to have bowed to demands from different religious groups in an attempt to create a new identity conflict. In this context, the withdrawal from the Istanbul Convention has symbolic significance, as it demonstrates Erdoğan’s commitment to building a conservative national identity through a right-wing populist agenda, which includes a more conservative stance on issues of gender, endorsing patriarchal social relations and emphasizing ‘family values’.
Is the EU selling?
It was at this critical moment, as women’s rights activists continued to protest against the withdrawal of the convention, that the “Sofagate” diplomatic crisis took place. During the EU’s official visit to Ankara, von der Leyen discovered that no seat had been prepared for her in a meeting when Erdoğan sat down to speak with his colleague, Michel. Regardless of which side was “responsible”, the chairman of the committee was clearly subject to sexism. While the episode also cast doubt on Michel’s attitude, it highlighted Erdoğan’s anti-gender policy.
As Turkey continues to restrict political and civil rights and violate human rights and the rule of law, EU-Turkey relations appear to focus on Turkey’s migration and policies in the Eastern Mediterranean, as well. than on strengthening trade relations. Progressive circles, in particular, criticize the EU’s engagement with the Erdoğan regime. They feel betrayed and sold by the EU, while the regime adorns itself with these talks. Meanwhile, the repression in the country only grows stronger.
Turkish progressive circles widely believe that the EU deals only with Erdoğan due to the 2016 agreement to limit refugee movements and thereby abandon its own values. Although good relations between the EU and Turkey are essential for all parties, democratization in Turkey’s current national context should be a prerequisite reconciliation, and relationships must not succumb to threats from an autocratic ruler.
This first appeared on International politics and society